July 2018  | 5 Days  |  1,920 Vertical Meters  |  55 Pitches

The Ascent

Earlier this summer, I joined Billy Porter and Paul Oberauer on a climbing trip to Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites of northern Italy. Paul picked us up in Salzburg and we drove five hours to an Alpine hotel south of Cortina d’Ampezzo where we failed to solicit even a few hours of sleep. Our 4:00am alarm clocks robbed me of the hope of fighting the remaining jetlag that cursed my body, but there was no point in worrying about rest. We were going for it, regardless.

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We arrived at the base of Cima Grande's sheer north face just as the sun brushed the very peak, thousands of feet above us. I looked up dazedly, trying to comprehend the hugeness of the task in front of us: the world famous, five hundred fifty meter Comici-Dimai route. This would be my second multipitch climb.

Before I could blink we were on the fifth pitch, moving swiftly. Our team of three kept pace with the couple ahead of us, and we cruised through the crux pitches. Billy led each pitch courageously, without hesitating once. 

The belays - protected by ancient crusty pitons, highly questionable tat, and decades-old wooden chocks - were a far cry from the stainless steel bolts and chains I’d been accustomed to clipping back in the states. We backed them up and moved on. 

About 350 meters up the wall, the hardest climbing was behind us and we approached the remaining pitches with energy and optimism. We rested for a few minutes, and eyed another team’s progress up the neighboring route – the classic Hasse-Brandler directissima. Notorious for its sustained, overhung climbing and downright difficult nature, this line was our next objective. 

Villainous, dark clouds rolled in from the north, and I suddenly felt an immense pressure to get up and off the mountain. What we anticipated to be 200 meters of lazy 5.7 climbing ahead of us turned out to be slimy, wet chimneys and dihedrals. 


Billy finished the next pitch, pushing through a fifteen meter runout to the belay above a ledge and out of sight. The wind made verbal communication impossible, and I soon felt two deliberate tugs on the rope, signaling that Billy was tethered safely to the anchor. I took him off belay and he pulled up the slack. Two minutes later, I felt five consecutive tugs on the rope, indicating that Billy was ready for me to climb. Searching for handholds that would hold my weight without breaking, I slowly and methodically moved upward, avoiding the dark wet streaks that pinstriped the wall. My rope dislodged a loose, brick-sized rock far above me that, with an ear-shattering “Crack!”, shattered on my helmet and disoriented me momentarily before moving onward.

I looked down. Fifteen hundred feet of gravity beckoned my tired bones as I traversed the lip of a tour bus sized roof. The moves were not difficult, but my endurance had been leaking steadily for seven hours and counting. A slip here would mean a ridiculously exposed fall, not without consequences. Two pitches to go. 

The rain generously held off until we topped out on the ring band, a narrow sloping shelf that wraps around the entire tower about 200 feet below the summit. Eleven hours of climbing after a sleepless night left us exhausted, dazed, and ready to descend, but the overhanging nature of the face renders a quick abseil impossible. A horizontal traverse across the ring band was our only exit.

With taunting slowness, the storm cloud finally arrived and emptied itself on us. The rain felt like icy pin pricks on my face as it turned to hail. It was time to get off the mountain.


Paul went first, following the ring band horizontally with what seemed like reckless nonchalance. After he disappeared around the corner, the rope tightened and Billy followed, clipping the rope to pitons every fifty feet at best. The pile of slack at my feet dwindled slowly as Billy disappeared too. To my left, a steep rocky face of crumbling dolomite rock rose directly to the summit. Eight feet to my right, the sloping ring band shelf that I stood on dropped abruptly into two thousand vertical feet of nothingness. 

As I waited impatiently, my disoriented imagination wandered to the consequences of a fall. Should I slip, I was looking at a one hundred thirty foot fall judging by where Billy stood at the moment. I suddenly became bemused with the situation, and infuriated with Billy and Paul. Had I missed something? One misjudgment in my delirious, sleep-deprived state could mean a fall to my death. 

The green rope came taut and interrupted my daymare. It was time to move. I skirted laterally along the ring band with perpetually insecure purchase. Each step disturbed small pebbles that trickled over the edge and into the void below. I moved slowly, waiting for the rope to pull tight before making each step. The surrounding clouds roiled and churned swiftly from gray to black to white and the steady headwind constantly challenged my balance. 

I turned the corner and staggered when I saw it – on the ring band ahead, the wall bulged over the ring band with only a three foot opening to crawl under. Below this bulge, in the middle of the exit path, was a chasm in the ring band. I froze. There was no time to consider options. There were no options. I cursed Billy, Paul, and the dark form above that rushed my progress. I committed. 

Once moving, however, I noticed a stoic acceptance of the task at hand. There were suddenly no thoughts of consequences, no anger, no debilitating fear - just pure presence. I crawled under the bulge on hands and knees and approached the chasm. I looked downward. The circulating fog below offered a brief glimpse of the talus that lay two thousand feet directly under me. My heart stopped for one, two, three beats. I was face to face with the void. 

I reached my hands across that two foot crack and crawled over it, but was unexpectedly pulled back. I tried to move forward again but my pack had snagged on a jagged limestone corner. Keeping the rest of my body perfectly still, I reached back, freed the snagged strap and kept moving. Once clear of the bulge, I stood shakily and turned the southwest corner to reconvene with my team. 

Paul was coiling the red rope behind his neck in long loops while Billy pulled in the last of the green rope, grinning at me proudly. The cloud we stood inside scattered the ebbing sun’s rays into a golden-orange alpenglow. Illuminated peaks across the expanse cast harsh shadows, revealing the raw ruggedness of the landscape. Below us in the valley, a magnificent rainbow formed a half arch between engulfing clouds. I stood tall and proud, allowing the mysterious cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, fear, and relief to take over.

We celebrated.


The Descent

The labyrinth of crumbling pillars, spires, and gullies that sprawled below us offered a stark contrast to the 550m blank face we had just overcome. The backside of this mountain looked like the crumbling ruins of a city-sized fortress from some corner of Middle Earth. I pulled the guidebook out of my pack and had just enough time to read “the longest and most complex descent in the Dolomites” before the sun vanished behind a cloud of fog that rose from the south.

We followed intermittent rock cairns and orange paint markings through corridors and down large gullies serving as the catch nets for rotten limestone above. At times when the horizontal nature of the path gave way, we would downclimb with or without the help of old knotted ropes. 


By now, a thick curtain of gray fog lingered at about seventy feet, obscuring anything and everything that lay behind it. I led the way around a corner and approached a cairn towards the edge of a drop off. Across a dark, gaping chasm sat a second cairn on the other side. I waited for the guys to catch up to discuss options, but I knew what had to be done. Paul went first. He tossed his pack to the other side and stepped back four or five paces. With a running start, he launched his body into the air, stretching his legs as far as they would go. In slow motion, he sailed over the gap and landed with both feet on the other side, running a few paces to slow his momentum. I followed, with Billy bringing up the rear. From there, we were able to downclimb to our first rappel rings and thus began our roped descent. 

Moving quickly, it wasn’t long before we caught up to an Austrian team from South Tirol. We briefly exchanged small talk and they pointed out how to navigate a few confusing turns ahead. We thanked them for allowing us to pass through, as they were familiar with the mazelike route off the mountain. 


Caution ruled the rest of the descent as my thighs burned from stabilizing my weary body on loose scree. We would scramble down and over class III and IV rock, then abseil a few rope lengths, scramble some more, and abseil again. This went on for two hours until we reached the bottom of the last rappel. The descent was far from over, however, and we still had several hundred vertical feet to go. 

Although temperatures hovered in the high 30s and low 40s Fahrenheit, snow accumulated in deep, long patches in the steep gullies. Paul’s hard edged shoes made for good post holing instruments, so he led the way. Billy and I followed, digging our heels into his footsteps and focusing hard to maintain balance. I heard a curse behind me and looked back. Billy had lost his footing above and slid down the icy slope straight for my knees. I moved two paces over and held my hand out, but he was able to self arrest and skid to a stop, dislodging a helmet-sized boulder in the process. The boulder tumbled down the snow until it disappeared through the fog, crashing into rocks a few seconds later. We were getting tired.

After an hour of post holing, we passed an old bunker big enough to sleep ten Italian WWI soldiers or even more tired and lost climbers. Confident that we were on the right path, we continued past the bunker and downward through more snow as the grade steepened. A slip here would send us sliding on our asses down the 45 degree slope to whatever array of gnarly rocks greeted us at the bottom. 


We were now in a gully the width of a two-lane parkway with vertical dolomite walls on either side. The snow had given way to rock, a very welcome sight. But we struggled even harder to gain purchase on the wildly loose scree without sliding down the mountain. Using the help of handholds on the rock wall, we slowly descended along the left wall of the gulley. It was getting dark and I began losing patience for the mandatory slowness of our chosen route. Towards the center of the gully, the size of the rocks shrunk, likely from regular erosion. I steered in that direction to what looked to be better footing, and I was right. I could move more swiftly on the smaller pebbles, sliding down and carefully controlling my momentum. I stopped to take a breather and squeeze the last few ounces of water from my Camelbak. 

As I drank, the ground rumbled below my feet and I looked up to see Billy’s head spin toward a loud crashing sound through the fog above us. Thinking avalanche, I started moving laterally as fast as I could, seeking the cover of the leftmost rock wall. When I finally gained traction on the loose rock, I over-throttled and slipped, drilling my left knee painfully into an immoveable rock. Without stopping, I looked upward and tried to comprehend what I saw.

Dozens of tire-sized boulders crashed their way through the fog, tumbling with haphazard violence. The thudding neared as I grimaced through the pain in my knee and hurriedly limped to the safety of the wall. I flattened myself against the dolomite, minimizing my profile from the stampede of stone bulls behind me. Again, I looked upward. Following the litany of rolling rocks, a dumpster-sized boulder thundered out of the fog, smashing everything in it’s path. With impossible power, the rogue megalith smashed the rock where I’d hit my knee and broke apart into hundreds of pieces below us. The resounding booms faded away, and after a few seconds the mayhem was all over. 

I pressed my forehead against the cold rock and relaxed my grip on the wall. I let out a long exhale, realizing I had held my breath through the full length of the melee. Billy looked over with wide, frightened eyes, his mouth forming a small “o”. Paul emerged from behind a bulge in the wall. They were, thankfully, both untouched. 

Shaky with fear, adrenaline, and pain, my knees collapsed and I sat motionless, allowing the intensity of the situation to sink in. Never before had I experienced a brush with death with such a degree of potential finality. As soon as I could stand again, we moved on and got the hell off the mountain. 

Fifteen minutes later we reached the gravel trail winding along the contour to Rifugio Lavaredo. My knee throbbed in pain, but at least I could walk on it. I checked my watch. Nine minutes until the rifugio closed for dinner. We topped the next rise to see the dim, warm lights illuminating the windows of the small mountain hut below. The smell of charred meat grew stronger and our pace quickened until we reached the steps of the front porch. 

I pulled the heavy door open and was revitalized by the welcome sight of lively tourists chatting over steaming venison goulash and amber Weizen beer. Behind the bar, Daniel and the two Italian barmaids cheered us enthusiastically, turning the heads of every tourist in the room. Daniel opened his arms and embraced us proudly as the barmaids poured us congratulatory beers. We threw our packs down in the hallway and seated ourselves at the last remaining table in the corner. I made a toast with the boys about climbing and friendship, and took a great big swig of the cold, carbonated Pilsen. A victorious day, indeed.